Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

I'm enjoying "The Leafsmith in Love" by K. J. Kabza today. It's a bit silly in places, with its mechanical magics and contest of manners, but a good kind of silly, one that fits my mood tonight. It's the story of a leafsmith, a sort of clockwork-wizard who uses the gears and such on plant and animal constructs, and his attempts to court a visitor to his home while another woman does her best to cast the leafsmith in poor light. Whimsical fun.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Monkey and the Inkpot

I'm still reading Adam's Curse by Bryan Sykes. It's going through a lot of ground related to why so many species have sexual reproduction and how that varies from one to another. I do love learning weird animal facts. I'll discover some detail about the life cycle or diet or something of this animal or that, run to Wikipedia to see what else that has to say, and then try to find a way to bring that animal or maybe just that dynamic into a story. This morning it was a tiny snippet about a tarsier in a book my son has from the library--cool animals. There's something Gollum-like about that picture on Wikipedia...

Anyway, the weird animal details in this book relate to sex--not the act, but how an individual animal's sex gets determined. In humans it's in the genes so that males and females have distinctly different chromosomes, but that's not always the case. For some reptiles, it depends on the temperature of the eggs as they develop in the nest. For a certain species of fish if you remove the one male from his harem of females, the largest female will undergo a rapid sex change so that there remains a male in the group. For a certain marine worm, the female is 10-20 times as long as the male, and the male lives inside her body where his only role is to produce sperm. Sex for them is chosen by whether the sex-less larva happen to within reach of a female's meter-long tongue (in which case it gets pulled over to the female and becomes male) or not (in which case it establishes itself in the currently worm-less space and grows much bigger, into a female).

I've read some SF with bizarre (seemingly to a human) sex and gender set-ups, but not as much as maybe there ought to be, if we weren't so blinded by what's familiar, and seldom as out there as some of these animals in this book. LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness certainly deserves mention, and I seem to remember a story I read last year where sex was a function of age, so that the young ones were male, and as they aged, they turned female. Or maybe the other way around. I'll have to see if I can track that one down. And there was that lovely story in Clarkesworld a few years ago where the POV character was female, and she had several second-class-citizen wives, who were all male ("The Beacon" by Darja Malcolm-Clarke). Not much else comes to mind at the moment.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Political quote

I don't discuss politics much here, but regardless of anyone's stance on health care, I'd think any rational person should agree that some of the doom and gloom rhetoric has been downright silly (or would be, at least, if not for the extra dosing of threatened violence). So in that spirit:
"So after I signed the bill, I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling or some cracks opening up in the earth," [Obama] said to laughter and applause. "Turned out it was a nice day; birds were chirping, folks were strolling down the mall, people still had their doctors."
quoted from FirstRead

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

Two stories this week, both by Alex Dally MacFarlane. "The City of Lobsters, or, the Dancers on Anchorage St." is the story of a travel reporter to the city of the title. Only, when she's stranded there beyond the end of the season, she learns that the face it wears for visitors is not the full story of the city. The story alternates a sort of grand, mythic tone to this city and what's said of it with the reporter's experiences, which creates a nice movement through the story, and the dynamics of the locals' interactions with visitors, which is more complex than you might think from my description of the story, is well done.

Bopping around links from that story led me to a story of hers that appeared in Sybil's Garage #5: "Tattoos of the Sky, Tattoos of the Days." Since one of my favorite stories I've recommended here in the past comes from Sybil's Garage (Brian Conn's whimsical "Six Questions About the Sun"), I decided to check this story out as well. There's some whimsy here also, and definitely a lyrical feel to the story of two women and the amazing tattoos one inks into the other's skin.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Inspiration

I wrote a post yesterday, but it really wasn't meant to fill the weekly inspiration post. This week, in addition to continuing the book of Bosch's paintings, I've started reading Adam's Curse by Bryan Sykes. I deeply enjoyed his book The Seven Daughters of Eve a number of years ago--it explores mitochondrial DNA, which we inherit from our mothers and they from their mothers, etc., only changed by random mutation, so they can tell us fascinating things about human history. He brings it alive by identifying the seven most common of those for people of European descent and speculating about when and where the common maternal ancestor of each group might have lived and what their lives would have been like. Fascinating stuff.

Adam's Curse, then, looks at the Y chromosome, which also is inherited unchanged except by mutation, though in this case from the paternal line. (Obviously.) From the cover copy and some of the introduction, it seems it will focus more on the future rather than the past. I think I've seen some articles that were published soon after the book came out challenging the idea that males will go extinct, but that's eventually where the arguments of the book are heading. I haven't reached that part of the book yet, though. So far it's been some anecdotes of the author's life and a look at the history of our understanding of how chromosomes work and how sex is determined. It doesn't have quite the same wow-factor, but it's been interesting.

One thing that might be of interest to writers who like steampunk is that a lot of the details of how genes are transmitted by chromosomes were known already in the 19th century, and much more could have been known if certain people had shared observations. Understanding the double helix structure and certainly sequencing the genome would be a big stretch (but then some of those kinds of stretches are often the point of steampunk, since a lot of the supposed technology is intentionally anachronistic), but if you're into the mad scientist streak within steampunk, there's still a lot you could do and not worry about drawing too much on more recent discoveries.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The use of SF genre tropes

In a review for Strange Horizons of The Secret History of Science Fiction, Paul Kincaid writes
In other words, for one group science fiction is a set of tools to be put at the service of the story, for the other group science fiction is a way of telling story, and this difference, though subtle, is significant.
I'd have to read all the stories in the collection to be sure I agree with exactly what he's getting at, but it's worth pointing out, since the collection under review is looking at cross-pollination between stories published obviously within genre and stories published by writers generally regarded as mainstream or literary, that he's not dividing the stories along those lines in this quote. Admittedly, he finds the ostensibly non-genre stories more likely to be in the first group and the SF stories more likely to be in the second, but the categories are imperfect predictors...which is largely the point. The borders and boundaries are fluid (and me, perhaps I aspire to be an undocumented immigrant across those lines...).

To expand on the difference he sees, here's another quote: "In the main...the devices of science fiction are being used as tools with which to question what it is that makes us human." This is completely in line with essays and quotes from Ursula Le Guin that I've mentioned here before, and definitely reflects my thoughts on speculative fiction in general--the fantastic can be cool or uncanny or horrific, full of a sense of wonder or dread, but that's not the purpose in itself. The point is to journey from that sense of whatever back to finding those same things in the real world of today.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Shirt Fiction Tuesday

I know, I just typed "shirt" fiction...but it's been one of those kind of evenings, so I'm just going to leave it... And it's technically ten minutes into Wednesday morning local time as I type this, but so it goes. Let's try this again:

Short Fiction, wee hours of Wednesday morning

Wee hours, I like that. Not a phrase I use often enough. Sounds awkward as a post title, but it still makes me smile.

I'm not sure I have my head together enough to think about what stories I read this past week (which weren't many), and I certainly am not prepared to read any of the stories I have open and waiting (which are many), but fortunately my friend Lindsey Duncan just had a story published a few days ago: "Balance of Power" in MindFlights. It falls into that second category of stories I haven't had a chance to read yet, but I still feel confident recommending it--the first time I read one of Lindsey's stories, I remember telling her that there was a Patricia McKillip feel to it, which is a strong compliment from me. So check it out and let me know if it is McKillip-esque. And now it's time for bed.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Quote from The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

Finally got around to reading this book. Near the end, I really liked this sentence (context is a dream of the main character, Landsman):
Landsman pursues Albert Einstein across the milk-white, chalk-white ice, hopping from square to shadowed square across relativistic chessboards of culpability and atonement, across the imaginary land of penguins and Eskimos that the Jews never quite managed to inherit.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Monkey and the Inkpot

For the second week in a row, my post on inspiration is about visual art. I've often wished I was more accomplished and experienced in visual art (but you just couldn't take art classes in my high school if you were doing the intense college prep route that seemed what was expected of me), so maybe enjoying these artists is my way to make up for that.

Whatever the case, I've enjoyed Hieronymus Bosch's paintings ever since I saw The Garden of Earthly Delights in El Prado in Madrid. It's easy to find lots of pictures of his wild paintings online, but here's one little detail of that triptych:


Just one small corner of the center painting, yet so busy and full of detail--I love that. So, I found a book all about Bosch, his paintings, his influences, the culture of the day. It's great stuff. When I chose to rename my surreal tree-city that's the setting for a number of stories, I picked "Boskrea" in part to evoke his name. I happen to be doing a major reworking of what I would like to be a mosaic novel set there (it needs a ton of work yet, though...). Reading through this book and looking at the details of many of his works, not just the most famous one, has given me a lot of ideas already for what direction to take my revisions. Much needed direction, I might add.
Speculative fiction in other countries

There's a good article on Locus today about 2009-published books from other countries, many in other languages and not yet translated into English. I always like to learn about the broader world of fiction, so it's fascinating to learn a bit about these. The best titles (after translation): The Wind in the Umbrella Pines from Czech Republic and And One Day in Siena the Orc Grabbed the She-mammal from Italy. And a couple that the premise especially struck me, Hydromania from Israel, in which water has become the new (scarce) currency and Enciclop├ędia da Est├│ria Universal from Portugal, which in summary seems very Borgesian...but that's a good thing to me. I only wish they'd been able to get some Spanish-language books, because then there'd be a chance I could read them already. Maybe some of the others have been or soon will be translated into Spanish...

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

A pair of wildly different stories this week: "Bearing Fruit" by Nikki Alfar and "The History Within Us" by Matthew Kressel.

"Bearing Fruit" has a fairy-tale feel to it, as a teenage girl sets out to discover the mango tree whose fruit impregnated her. Nicely subverted at the end--I love the line "But you have managed to learn some other things over the past months: that truths do not necessarily come in threes..." As that sentence shows, the story's in second person. I've periodically run into people who violently dislike second person, but I've never understood that. I think second often works best when the "you" addressed is distinctly, radically different from me as a reader, and the (teenage, female, pregnant) "you" here certainly fulfills that. It also manages to preserve the fairy tale sense of the telling while drawing the reader in more intimately here, something that can be difficult with works that cling too close to a fairy tale telling.

"The History Within Us" is a far-future SF story about a galaxy in shambles, post-humans, and a group of beings preparing to crash into a black hole in the hope of then being flung into a new universe. It's also the story of memory, of legacy and shame and the stories people tell. Much of the story is actually in the backstory, as it gets revealed, but that's paired with the very human main storyline about what the protagonist will do with her collected pieces of human history.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Inspiration

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed a book of surrealism from the library, part history of the movement, but largely full-color pictures of many works of surreal art--paintings, sculptures, photographs.

One artist that caught my attention was Leonara Carrington. Not the picture that's above, actually--that's one I found online, the title of which translates as The Magical World of the Maya. The more I look at it, the more I love it and want to see the real painting in person.

The work that first caught my eye was The Pleasures of Dagobert, but it shares some qualities with this. There's a sort of medieval tapestry feel to it at a glance, and certainly a Hieronymous Bosch sense to some of the figures within. It's a very busy painting, and I like that--so much to see, so many details that you might not notice until the second or third time. You can see a smaller version of the painting at this other blog (for some reason, I couldn't get that image to show up in my post).

Definitely an artist I want to remember and see more of.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

E-reader?

There are times when I entertain the idea of getting an e-reader of some sort. I like the idea of traveling with lots of novels but without taking up too much space. And I like the idea of being able to flip between books--finish a chapter of fiction and switch to a nonfiction book, or between two very different works of fiction. I'd even consider subscribing to New York Times or Newsweek or something like that. I've had subscriptions to each at one time and enjoyed having them back then.

On the other hand...I'm not usually a cutting-edge, early adopter kind of person. We still have an old-style TV (and converter box for the rabbit-ear antenna). I don't own an mp3 player of any kind (though I'm getting to the point where I'm considering getting one). I kept my first cell phone for something like seven years before I finally upgraded a couple of years ago.

So what would an e-reader need for me to get one? I like wireless, but 3-G isn't necessary for how I would use it at this time. E-ink is nice, but color capability is good too, so I guess I'm agnostic on that count. There's another screen type I've read about but forget the name, one that seems to have the advantages of each of the other two.

I'm an open-source proponent, so I'd lean toward something more open rather than less. Especially, I'd want something that I could read books from any source, including the collection of random .pdf's I've accumulated over the past few years for free. That's the big strike against iPad and Kindle for me--from what I've heard, it's a pain to get your own files onto a Kindle, and I believe iPad won't even allow it. I'm not sure about Nook or any other readers out there. I'd definitely want something that I could read a variety of formats and from whatever sources I wanted.

And then there's the fact that I get so many of my books from the library. I'll then buy favorite books after the fact, but I read far more than I buy, and I like to know I'm going to enjoy a book before I buy it. I've "checked out" an audio book from an online library before, and I know Nook has something where you can borrow an ebook from a friend who bought it. And then it expires after a certain amount of time. So if some combination of those ideas came along (or exists already?), then that would go a long way toward convincing me to buy one. I'd even put up with a few pages of ads from book publishers or book sellers before I got to the story.

I'm also a fan of books-as-physical-objects. I wouldn't want to give that up entirely. Especially when it comes to some publishers that take the time to design their books as beautiful objects (most notably, Aio). I'm not about to abandon such books. But I remain very curious to see the development of e-readers, and perhaps on that count I won't be a decade behind times when I do decide to finally purchase one.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Short Fiction Tuesday

I seemed to have a difficult time focusing on short stories this week. I have a bunch of tabs open with stories that seem interesting, that I want to read...but I haven't read beyond the first paragraph or so of any of them. I tend to do that anyway, and I even still have a tab open with a story from early February, but it's seemed more pronounced this week. Is it my fault? The fault of the stories I've come across? Probably the former.

Anyway, one I did read was Michael Bishop's "The Library of Babble." It's a perplexing story, one that doesn't offer answers to its own central question of what the library is--or rather what it's for--but I enjoyed it. There is an answer, the story seems to say, and it's one that the protagonist's son discovers, but that answer can't be expressed in words, only in music.

Monday, March 01, 2010

An amazing book

I finished a great book this morning--The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. I'd seen some brief discussion of the book a few years ago and was intrigued, but it took me until now to got my hands on a copy and read it.

Here's the blurb, which sums it up nicely:
After his wife leaves him, Federico de la Fe and his daughter Little Merced depart the town of Las Tortugas, Mexico and head for Los Angeles. There, with the aid of a local street gang and the prophetic powers of a baby Nostradamus, they engage in an epic battle to find a cure for sadness. Mechanical tortoises, disillusioned saints hiding in wrestling rings, a woman made of paper, and Rita Hayworth are a few of the players whose destinies intertwine in this story of war and lost love. The People of Paper is simultaneously a father-daughter immigration story, a wildly inventive reimagining of Southern Californian mythology, and an exploration of the limits of fiction. Part memoir, part lies, this is a book about the wounds inflicted by first love and sharp objects.
It's incredibly inventive and playful in the way it tells the story. Magical realism, metafictional...whatever you want to call it, it's very fun. I don't feel up for doing an actual review of it, but I can certainly recommend it.